Dr Ruth Perrin: How Faith Changes; Exploring the Experiences of Young Adults in North East England
It is well documented that young adults are a small demographic group within the UK church and that there are many social, economic, emotional and spiritual challenges for the generation known as Gen Y or Millennials. It is also widely recognised that the twenties are a period of identity formation and ‘meaning making’ which includes a consolidation or reformation of the religious beliefs of childhood and youth. This research project explores how young adults within the region, who had a faith at 20, have experienced the subsequent decade, and how that has effected their beliefs.
Almost 50 young adults aged 29-37 have been interviewed about their experiences of life, church and faith during their twenties. Participants have been recruited from a variety of churches (and snowball sampling used for those who no longer have a faith or are de-churched). Approximately a third are from Newcastle, a third from the Tees Valley and a third from Northumberland in order to provide a picture of experiences from across the region.
A report of findings is due in summer 2018 which will be made available to church leaders and interested others across the North East. It hopes to provide insight into patterns within young adult experience and to consider the ways in which those shape Christian beliefs. There is also an intention to convene a subsequent symposium to discuss the findings with interested parties.
Dr Charles Pemberton: Foodbanks and Theology
The return of Christian social service to the centre of British political rhetoric and welfare through the recent emergence of the foodbank movement has elicited a range of ecclesial responses. These church policy documents, from Hungry for More to Walking the Breadline, give preliminary rationales lodged in theological anthropology, Christian ontology and ecclesiological praxis for the defence and supersession of contemporary foodbank practices. However, in their urgency and brevity these church responses fail to systematically integrate political critique and social analysis, nor do they undertake a sustained integration of the recent gains in political theology with the realities of our current ‘mixed economy of welfare’.
The aim of the Foodbanks and Theology project was to fill this lack by setting in dialogue the proliferating field of political theology and burgeoning British emergency foodbank network. Based on ethnographic and theological research undertaking in the north east of England with County Durham Foodbanks (a subsidiary of Durham Christian Partnership and affiliate of the Trussell Trust) between April 2016 and September 2017 this project drew on interviews with foodbank users and volunteers to defend and advance a Christian social vision beyond emergency food provision.
The interviews already undertaken as a part of the project’s research reiterated a number of issues already highlighted by recent large scale social scientific investigations into contemporary foodbank use. Those accessing foodbank services not only face insecure working environments and starvation level benefits, they also disproportionately suffer from mental and physical ailments and social isolation (even when compared to others in the lowest income bracket). The questions posed, politically and theologically, by British foodbanks consequently include not only the just distribution or redistribution of resources but the prevalence of loneliness in British society and the contemporary marginalisation of disabled people.
Isolating these social trends, analysing their political ramifications and reading them in the light of political theology were the key aims of this project. Recent works on human relationality by Christian theologians and the growing body of literature that sets itself to articulate a distinctive Christian theology of food were applied to our contemporary social fragmentation. However, whether these works, including the popular writings on ‘being with’ by the Anglican theologian Samuel Wells, can be used to fund a political project of renewal which meets the needs of foodbank clients ‘up stream’ were also questioned. The projects outcomes, now being finalised, include a journal article on political theology and foodbanks, a monograph length text on food poverty, church mission and theology in the north east of England, and an advanced volunteer training course to be delivered by Country Durham Foodbank.
Paul Bickley: The Spirit of Resilience
The 2008 recession and the subsequent need to bear down on public spending have prompted many thinkers and policy makers to talk about the need for ‘community resilience’ – the ability to ‘bounce back’ in times of adversity. Many have critiqued the concept, arguing that it creates an expectation that communities must learn how to survive, without structurally addressing underlying vulnerabilities.
In resilience thinking there is often a strong emphasis on economic and financial dimensions, but some models have been extended beyond these, allowing for the significance of family, friendship, neighbourhood networks of support. On an individual level, it is also acknowledged that spirituality and religious beliefs can support resilience. However, there has been little consideration of how churches contribute to wider community resilience in the UK context.
The aim of the project is to examine the relationship between churches and community resilience. Do they contribute to it and, if so, how?
The research project will:
- Bring the idea of community and neighbourhood resilience into dialogue with theological reflection around the ministry of local churches, looking to find both the resonances and dissonances;
- Consider how the Christian ideas of suffering, endurance and hope tangibly shape the ministry of churches in areas of high deprivation and contribute to a wider resilience in the community;
- Engage a number of churches in the North East in a participative programme of research developed to uncover how congregations contribute to community resilience and to help them achieve greater understanding and traction in their ministry;
- Develop proposals on how churches and policy makers could think and act in ways which recognise the public significance of the ministry of churches.
Chris Beales: A project to map new housing developments across the North East of England and explore how the Churches are engaging with the new communities being created.
Across the 12 local authority areas of North East England, large numbers of new homes are being built. My research will map significant new housing developments, identifying their scale, density and mix and considering their impact on existing communities.
I aim to find out how Churches (of all denominations) engage (or not) with the residents of new communities and what specific strategies Churches are creating for ministry and mission in these areas. I will also note the involvement of other agencies (councils, voluntary groups, businesses etc). I will take account of how, historically, Churches have engaged with new communities and look, in particular, at some of the housing estates built by William Leech between 1950s and 1980s. I will also study in greater depth a small number of new housing developments.
The challenge for the Churches in mission is how to contribute to “building good community”, imbued with the visions and values of the Gospel, and how to grow local congregations indigenous to the new community.
My end-of-project report will aim to lay the foundations for new strategic thinking and action by Churches and others. It will provide a basis for more subsequent in-depth work across the region.